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       Prized, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Not good, Gaia thought, hoping the mother’s frenzy didn’t presage an underlying complication. She had to be ready before the next one.

  She took a quick survey of the room to see what she had to work with, noting the lit fireplace and a pile of clean linens. Two oil lamps gave good light, and the bed jutted into the middle of the room so it would be easy to get to both sides. As she washed her hands in the corner basin, she knew she would need more water and a knife. If only she had her old midwifery satchel.

  The next moment Josephine expelled her breath rapidly, panting, and her eyes, glazed, rolled back in her head. Dinah looked back over her shoulder, her expression grim. “I don’t suppose you’ve had any experience with this.”

  “Actually, I have.” Gaia leaned near to the mother. “Here, now, Josephine. Let’s see if you can sit up a bit more before the next one, okay? And try your knees here.” She took the girl’s hand and moved a couple of pillows along her back. “Is this your first baby? How old are you?”

  “It’s my first,” Josephine said. “I’m seventeen. It just hurts so bad. Is it supposed to hurt this bad?”

  Gaia smiled. “It’s normal to hurt some, but you’ll be all right. I’m Gaia and I want you to listen to me. When the next contraction comes, I want you to look in my eyes, okay? Don’t close your eyes. And see if you can keep breathing. I’ll help you. All right? Can you do that?”

  The girl pushed the black curls out of her face and nodded, already a little calmer. “Okay. You look younger than me. What’s wrong with your face?”

  Gaia smiled. “It’s just a scar. I’m sixteen. How much time has there been between contractions? Ten minutes? Five?”

  Josephine looked at Dinah, as if she didn’t know.

  “Closer to three or four, I’d guess,” Dinah said.

  “I’m going to need some hot water and a knife,” Gaia said, taking her locket watch from around her neck. She dried it on the corner of a blanket before she flipped the catch and set it on the bedside table. “And Josephine’s probably thirsty. Do you have any motherwort? Any black cohosh?”

  “I have some chamomile. I’ll get it, and the water. You can’t believe how happy I am that you’re here,” Dinah said.

  “It’s coming again!” Josephine said urgently.

  Gaia ran a sure hand down the girl’s back and gave her the other to hold. “You’re going to be okay. You’re doing a fine job. Just breathe easily here, ready? Breathe in, now.” She took a deep breath herself, inviting the anxious mother to follow. “Josephine, look at me.” She could feel Josephine’s focus on her own lips. “That’s right,” Gaia said, smiling slightly. “A good deep breath now.” She showed her again.

  Gaia could feel Josephine’s eyes fixed on hers in pain but not panic, and when the contraction stopped, she relaxed backward, exhausted.

  Gaia glanced up at Dinah, who had paused in the doorway to watch.

  “Why didn’t you just say you were a midwife?” Dinah asked.

  “I wasn’t sure I still was,” Gaia answered, and laughed somewhere between surprise and despair.

  The last birth she’d handled had gone completely, desperately, fatally wrong. Part of her had never wanted to deliver another baby after her mother’s death, but now, with Josephine needing her, she knew her mother would expect her to take up her duties again. She looked down at her hands as she wiped them again on a clean white cloth.

  “Where’s your usual midwife or doctor?” Gaia asked.

  “Our last doctor died a few years ago and our midwife died in childbirth two summers ago,” Dinah said. “The best we have now is Chardo Will, who’s pretty good with animals. I sent a boy for him an hour ago, but he hasn’t come.”

  “The outrider who brought me in?” Gaia asked, confused.

  “That was Chardo Peter. Will is Peter’s brother.” Dinah went to gather what supplies she could.

  Gaia met the gaze of the tired girl on the bed. “Do you mind if I examine you?”

  “Okay.” Josephine’s voice was small. She pointed toward a little table. “Could you hand me my bear first?”

  Gaia saw a ratty brown thing with one button eye. “Sure,” she said, and passed it over before she gently lifted the mother’s gown. “You might feel some pressure.”

  She examined Josephine with steady, perceptive hands. The mother was fully dilated, and the baby’s head was hard in the cervix’s opening. Everything was in line naturally for an uncomplicated delivery, and Gaia was relieved.

  “It’s not too much longer now,” Gaia said. “You did the hard work before I came.”

  Within an hour, it was true, and the mother lay back, spent, while Gaia passed the infant to Dinah.

  “You’ve done so well, Josephine,” Gaia said. “Truly. She’s a beautiful baby girl.”

  “A girl?” Josephine asked. “Really?”

  Dinah tucked a clean blanket around the newborn and set her gently in Josephine’s arms. “A girl. I can’t believe it,” Dinah said. “The first one in two years. The Matrarc will be ecstatic.”

  Gaia cleaned up gently between Josephine’s legs, making sure the afterbirth was complete. More memories of her mother came back to her as she massaged Josephine’s abdomen, helping the uterus to contract. There was nothing dangerous about the blood flow, or Josephine’s coloring, and the baby was full term and healthy, yet Gaia felt an urgency to make sure everything went just right. She kept her head down, working silently, until finally she tucked a wadded towel tightly between Josephine’s legs and settled her sideways where she’d be comfortable for a few hours.

  As she stepped back, a touch of dizziness hit her, and she braced a hand against the wall.

  “You all right?” Dinah asked.

  Gaia touched a hand to her eyebrow. “I’m fine. A little dizzy maybe.”

  “Here, take a seat while I finish tidying up here,” Dinah said, pulling up a chair beside the fireplace and guiding Gaia to it. Dinah laughed. “Your clothes are clammy still. Let me get you some dry things.”

  “I’m okay,” Gaia said.

  “Something for your feet at least. Your toes are blue. Why are you barefoot?”

  “I couldn’t find my boots. I left my socks on your porch.”

  Dinah threw on a couple of logs and gave the fire a poke, then rummaged up some dry socks and a pair of worn, oversized loafers. Gaia inched her shod feet toward the warmth, and then she reached for her locket watch, the only gift she had left from her parents, and tilted it toward the firelight. She ran her thumb over the engraved words: Life first.

  Now that her parents were both dead and her sister taken from her, Gaia took little comfort in the credo. Putting life first hadn’t worked for her parents. If anything, her parents had found things worth dying for. Or being killed for. She closed the lid with a little snap.

  Gaia looked over to see Josephine’s tired eyes gleaming from her pillow. Her damp black hair curled vividly around her bright eyes, and there was a winsome loveliness to her smile as she traced the little face of her daughter.

  “I don’t know how I can ever repay you for tonight,” Josephine murmured. “Either of you.”

  Dinah gave the girl a quick kiss on her forehead. “It was no trouble at all.”

  Gaia felt the same way.

  Now was the time Gaia would normally have a cup of tea with the mother and birthmark the infant’s ankle with the Orion tattoo, but she had no needle, no ink, and no mother of her own to keep the tradition alive for. The onslaught of sadness hit her then, fast and hard. She missed her mother so intensely she could barely take in air. “Excuse me,” she said, rising. “Where’s the washroom?”

  “There’s an outhouse out the back door,” Dinah said. “Just go down the hall there. Here, take the lantern.” She lit the little candle and dropped the pane of glass back in place.

  Gaia held herself together until she stepped out the back door, but as the rain curtained around her off the overhang, she sank down on the back stoop of the little ca
bin. She set the lantern beside her, but tilted it so badly the flame went out. She curled her legs up in her arms, resting her forehead against her knees. She had just assisted a birth again. Babies were still coming into the world while, in some far off city, her mother was dead. Thunder crashed around her. Gaia didn’t even get to bury her. Or her father.

  She squeezed hard around her knees, gulping in big, impossible, ragged gasps of air. Blind grief wracked through her, and she wished, she just wished she could have her mother back. She didn’t care at all about getting burned for her scar. She just wished she could take all of the last months back, erase them all, and be back in her old home with the comforting rattle of her father’s treadle sewing machine and her mother kissing her good night.

  But she would never see either of them again.

  She moaned over a little ache in her throat. I hope they at least buried Mom beside Dad.

  The door behind her bumped into her back as it was pushed partly open, letting out a crack of light.

  “Mlass Gaia? Are you all right?” Dinah asked.

  Gaia sniffed in hard and wiped her nose on her wet sleeve.

  “What are you doing out here?” Dinah said.

  “I’m sorry. Is Josephine okay?”

  “She’s fine. But what about you?”

  Gaia dragged herself to her feet. She couldn’t meet Dinah’s gaze. She could feel it coming again, and she was ashamed to cry in front of anyone else. Then she did, anyway.

  “You poor kid,” Dinah said. “Come on in here. Let’s see if we can’t warm you up.”

  “It’s just so unfair,” Gaia sobbed.

  Dinah hugged her hard, and then picked up the lantern and guided her back inside again. She held the curtain aside for her and nudged her toward the fire.

  “Is she okay?” Josephine said.

  Gaia dropped off the big loafers and pulled her feet up on the chair. She had to stop crying. Just had to. She hid her face and felt a big soft towel settling around her shoulders. A shudder rippled through her, and then a hiccup. She clutched at the edge of the towel until finally the worst of it passed.

  When she peeked out again, a bowl of soup was waiting for her. She reached wearily for it and slowly spooned bits of chicken and black rice from the hot broth. To her left, Dinah was softly talking with Josephine, and the baby snuggled in to nurse for the first time. When Dinah came to take the bowl out of her fingers, Gaia stirred enough to thank her.

  “You hardly ate anything,” Dinah said. “Better? A little?”

  Gaia nodded.

  “You’ve come far, haven’t you?” Josephine said.

  Gaia closed her eyes to slits, making the fire blur. “From another world,” she murmured.

  Dinah sat on the end of Josephine’s bed, and as she leaned forward, resting her slender forearms on the knees of her trousers, her braid slipped over her shoulder. Her wide gray eyes caught the firelight as she spoke.

  “I wish I could do more for you,” Dinah said. “But I’m afraid you might be in even more trouble for coming here.”

  “How so?”

  Dinah picked a bit of lint off her trousers. “I’m guessing you didn’t exactly have permission to come down. We’re libbies, outcasts from the cuzines. The mlasses of the lodge don’t normally mingle with us. Since this was a medical situation, I’m hoping the Matrarc will overlook it.”

  Gaia frowned. “What’s a libby?”

  “You’re my new hero,” Josephine said, then spoke to Dinah in a hushed squeal. “She’s never heard of a libby!”

  Dinah regarded Gaia curiously. “Where you’re from, what do they call the women who don’t marry?”

  “I don’t know. ‘Single’?” Gaia said.

  Josephine laughed again. “I love that. ‘Single.’ I want to be single.”

  Dinah’s expression remained somber. “Okay. You need to understand something,” she said to Gaia. “It’s very important here for women to marry and have children. Ten children is the goal. Even after they have ten, most mladies keep on having children. They consider it a duty and an honor.”

  Ten children. “That sounds just insane,” Gaia said.

  “Not if you think of it this way. We have roughly two thousand people here in Sylum,” Dinah said. “Nine out of ten are men, and that proportion is getting worse each generation. The men, of course, can’t have children. That means, for our population just to stay the same, each of our two hundred women needs to bear ten children.”

  “And if they don’t?”

  “We’ll die off. We’ve been dying off for generations,” Dinah said, but there was something in her voice that Gaia didn’t understand, as if Dinah was reconciled to this extinction.

  “What does that have to do with you and Josephine?” Gaia said.

  Dinah dovetailed her fingers before her. “Mx. Josephine and I have broken the rules. We’re not getting married. We’ve opted out.”

  “You opted out,” Josephine corrected her. “Some of us got kicked out.”

  “If it mattered to some of us to stay in the cuzines, some of us shouldn’t have been sleeping around with men in the pool,” Dinah said.

  Josephine pouted, reminding Gaia of a cornered, petulant kitten. “Xave is not any ‘man in the pool’,” she said.

  “No. He’s the biggest, handsomest, meanest one of them all,” Dinah said dryly. “Good choice.”

  “I take it you’re not going to marry him,” Gaia said, still watching Josephine.

  Dinah laughed. “It’s too late for that now. Besides, he won’t have anything to do with her.”

  “He might feel differently once he meets his daughter,” Josephine said stubbornly. “We had a girl.” She pushed her black curls back and tucked them behind her ear.

  Dinah clunked her hand against her forehead. “Walker Xavier is not coming back to you now, not after all he went through insisting he was innocent. He’s not going to forget hours in the stocks and a month with the crims.”

  “You don’t know Xave,” Josephine said.

  “I don’t have to know him!” Dinah said. “He’s ignored you utterly for what, seven months now? You think that’s an accident?”

  Josephine’s face closed. “I really don’t need this right now.”

  Dinah smoothed the blanket around the girl’s feet, and as she did so, Dinah’s expression softened. “I don’t mean to pick on you. It’s him I’m mad at when I think of the hardships ahead of you.”

  Gaia glanced up. “What do you mean?”

  Dinah flicked her gaze to Gaia’s. “We’re practically men, with no rights and no vote. Second-class citizens at best. Mx. Josephine will keep her daughter as long as she nurses her, up to a year, and then she’ll give her over to one of the regular families with a mother in the cuzines. It won’t be fun.”

  “But why?” Gaia asked.

  “Libby mothers are unfit to be parents,” Dinah said mockingly. “We don’t demonstrate the proper family values.”

  “Just because you don’t want to marry?” Gaia asked, surprised.

  “It’s the whole thing,” Dinah said. She retucked her blouse where it was a little loose at the back. “Remember what I said about the ten children? The cuzines are devoted to sustaining the population, and they need every girl to take up her duties of motherhood. The costs are very high for a girl who doesn’t. After all, we libbies are accelerating the extinction. That’s hardly patriotic.”

  Gaia looked again at Josephine’s little baby and thought of her own sister. No wonder the Matrarc had been so implacable about taking Maya away, considering that she was accustomed to reassigning libby babies to new parents.

  “You don’t seem to have any illusions about it,” Gaia said.

  Dinah laughed. “I’ve never been one to delude myself.”

  “Do you have any children yourself?” Gaia asked.

  “I have Mikey,” Dinah said. “He’s seven now.”

  “And who’s raising him?” Gaia asked.

  Dinah picked
up a blanket from the end of the bed and refolded it carefully. “My brother and his wife. They’re one of the Munsch families, down by the marsh. They dote on him, and he’s happy there now. I visit him often. He calls me his Aunt Dinah.”

  Gaia didn’t understand how she could be so calm about it. Either Dinah had an incredibly thick skin, or her nonchalance was a façade. “Why didn’t you just marry the father of your child?”

  Dinah smiled with amusement. “I wasn’t going to shackle my life to a man’s just to keep my child and then be bound to have nine more children by him. Besides, I was already a libby by then.”

  “But you must have loved him, at least for a time,” Gaia pressed.

  “I don’t love anyone,” Dinah said. “I’d rather have my books.”

  “Don’t believe her,” Josephine said. “She was chosen as the prize in the thirty-two games five times before she became a libby, and she’s had plenty of expool boyfriends since then. She has to beat them away.”

  “Enough of that,” Dinah said, smiling. “That’s none of your business, or Mlass Gaia’s. We’re not supposed to be corrupting her.”

  Gaia was impressed, and curious. “What are the thirty-two games?”

  “They’re a competition where the men try to win a chance to live with a woman in the winner’s cabin for a month. It’s ridiculous,” Dinah said.

  “It’s fun,” Josephine argued, smiling. “You’ll see.”

  “Maybe I should be a libby,” Gaia said.

  “Don’t you start thinking like that,” Dinah said. “This isn’t the life for you. I can tell already.”

  “Why not?”

  “You’re smart. You’ll want to do things with your life, and for that, you have to be in the cuzines,” Dinah said. “You have to stay on the Matrarc’s good side.”

  Gaia had her doubts about how likely that was. “She thinks I’m a criminal for endangering my sister.”

  “I know. I’m not sure what she’ll do to you if the baby dies,” Dinah said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean for that to sound so blunt. I’m just trying to think ahead. For lesser crimes, a woman’s confined to the lodge, but we’ve never had a woman convicted of murder before.” She straightened slightly. “I guess she could exile you, and then the gateway sickness would kill you. Did you say you saw a corpse at the oasis?”

 
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